Wednesday, August 28, 2013

San Diegans Mobilize to Support Pelican Bay Prisoners

Partners, Family Members of Prisoners Lead Discussion at Centro Cultural


Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Awareness protest at Fairmount & University, City Heights, August 5




Buried Alive 24/7 (with aerial photo of Pelican Bay)

“Debrief”/Snitch, Parole or Die

Hunger for Justice

Solitary Is Torture


Artcrafts made by prisoners in Tecate, Mexico — a right denied to California’s SHU inmates

As these words are written, prisoners incarcerated in the so-called SHU (pronounced “shoe” and variously standing for Special, Secure or Security Housing Unit) at Pelican Bay State Prison in Northern California have been on a hunger strike for 53 days. Eleven days ago, on August 18, an organization called the San Diego Committee for Prisoners’ Rights, reachable by phone at (619) 508-6756 or online via Facebook at, sponsored an event at the Centro Cultural de la Raza in Balboa Park to build support for the hunger strikers. It consisted of a showing of a 2011 documentary film, Concrete and Sunshine, about the vast expansion of the prison-industrial complex in California in the last 30 years, plus often heartrending live stories from the wives, sisters and other family members at Pelican Bay.
According to an in-depth article by Los Angeles Times reporter Paige St. John (,0,1327999,full.story), the hunger strike began July 8. It was called by Todd Ashker and three other inmates being held in solitary confinement in the Pelican Bay SHU: Antonio “Chuco” Guillen, alleged leader of the Latino gang Nuestra Familia; Arturo “Tablas” Castellanos, a supposed member of the Mexican Mafia; and Ron Dewberry a.k.a. Sitawa Nantambu Jamaa, alleged to belong to the Black Guerrilla Family.
Ashker, a white man whose body is covered in tattoos with white-supremacist symbols, and the others formed what they called the “Short Corridor Collective,” after the hallway on which their cells are located, in August 2012. Though many of the prisoners involved had landed in the SHU in the first place for racially motivated murders or assaults committed in prison, Ashker presented the group as “a collective effort initiated by a multiracial group of long-term, similarly situated (SHU) prisoners who decided enough is enough.”
According to Ashker, the white, Black and Latino members of the Short Corridor Collective reached an “agreement to end hostilities,” by which they would end racially motivated assaults on each other and focus on a common enemy — the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), which runs the state’s prisons — and the “informers, snitches, rats and obstructionists” who, according to the group’s statement, “use us against each other for their benefit!!”
In her article, St. John described the Pelican Bay SHU as “divided into pods of eight cells stacked four-wide and two-high, facing a blank wall. There are no bars. Each steel door is perforated to let in air and light. Once a day, that door slides open. The prisoner can enter an empty concrete ‘dog run’ for 90 minutes to exercise. Kept indoors for years, men in the SHU take on a ghostly pallor, as if dusted with flour. They get less canteen food than do other inmates, less clothing, and are allowed limited belongings, fewer visits and no phone calls. Every privilege, from mail to medical care, is rationed.”
What’s more, the length of time a prisoner must spend in the SHU is open-ended. It’s not like “the hole” in prison movies, where a particular infraction against prison rules got you locked in solitary for a specific period of time. “For those accused of gang involvement, the SHU is an indefinite sentence,” St. John explained. “More than 400 have been inside Pelican Bay’s SHU for more than a decade; 78, including Ashker, have been held there for more than two decades.” The prisoners’ mental-health complaints — “anger, anxiety, depression, insomnia, inability to concentrate and loss of a sense of time” — are similar to those experienced by prisoners in solitary in other states and countries, which has led at least one United Nations official to declare solitary a form of torture.
Nobody is actually sentenced to a SHU in a court of law. Assignments to SHU’s are made by prison officials on their own authority. According to a leaflet produced by supporters of the hunger strike, “Thousands of prisoners are in solitary based on the prison’s determination that they are associated with a prison gang, not for committing a violent act or breaking a prison rule. The evidence of gang association can be as trivial as who signed their birthday card, what books they read, the art they draw, or who they say ‘Hi!’ to. It is often based on general statements of secret witnesses who have provided this information to get out of solitary confinement themselves.”
That process is what CDCR calls “debriefing” and the prisoners call “snitching.” Its abolition is one of the five key demands of the hunger strikers. “Prisoners are accused of being active participants of the prison gangs using false evidence and are sent to long-term isolation (SHU),” the strikers’ demand sheet explains. “They can escape these torturous conditions only if they ‘debrief’; that is, become informants, ‘snitch’ on other prisoners. Debriefing produces false information (wrongly landing other prisoners in SHU) and can endanger the lives of debriefing prisoners and their families.” It’s because of this state policy that prisoners grimly joke that there are only three ways out of the SHU: debriefing, parole for the crime that put them in prison in the first place, or death.
Other demands of the hunger strikers include an end to “group punishment and administrative abuse,” particularly the CDCR’s practice of punishing racially motivated assaults in prison by putting all the inmates of the attacker’s race, not just the attacker himself, in the SHU; an end to long-term solitary confinement; adequate and nutritious food; and education, self-help treatment, religious counseling and other “constructive programming” aimed at helping inmates become productive, law-abiding citizens when they’re finally released. California used to call this “rehabilitation” until the state redefined the mission of its prison system in the early 1980’s and said its goal was just to punish prisoners, not to reform them.

The Families Speak Out

The August 18 event was introduced by Avon (the speakers identified themselves by first names only), an activist with the San Diego Committee for Prisoners’ Rights and the peace group ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism). He announced that many other organizations had endorsed the program, including the Committee Against Police Brutality, the Association of Raza Educators and groups supporting global justice and the Zapatista movement in Mexico. (At the end of the program this author, a board member of Activist San Diego, announced that group’s endorsement of the Pelican Bay hunger strike by a unanimous vote of its board.) Avon talked about his group’s visibility actions not only around the Pelican Bay strike but other abuses, including mass detentions of alleged undocumented immigrants by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
After the Concrete and Sunshine film was screened, family members of the Pelican Bay hunger strikers spoke. “My brother has been in the Pelican Bay SHU for eight years,” said Amber, and he is not ‘the worst of the worst’” — referring to how CDCR officials in general and the agency’s head, Jeffrey Beard, refer to the strikers. Amber read a series of letters she received from her brother, the first written on day 3 and the next on day 17.
“The people from Sacramento arrive today,” Amber’s brother wrote on day 17. “CDCR has started to spread misinformation, but the strike is the bright light and CDCR are the cockroaches that flee when the light is turned on. They prefer to work in the dark, but this light will shine on any falsehoods.”
The attitude of CDCR officials that especially upset Amber, her brother, the other hunger strikers and their families was vividly depicted by Jeffrey Beard in an op-ed he published in the August 6 Los Angeles Times. “Some prisoners claim this strike is about living conditions in the Security Housing Units, commonly called SHU’s, which house some of the most dangerous inmates in California,” Beard wrote. “Don’t be fooled. Many of those participating in the hunger strike are under extreme pressure to do so from violent prison gangs, which called the strike in an attempt to restore their ability to terrorize fellow prisoners, prison staff and communities throughout California.”
Beard quoted two prisoners who participated in a previous hunger strike in 2011. “Honestly, we did not care about human rights,” one of them said. “The objective was to get into the general population, or mainline, and start running our street regiments again.”
Another prisoner Beard quoted said, “We knew we could tap big-time support through this tactic, but we weren’t trying to improve the conditions in the SHU; we were trying to get out of the SHU to further our gang agenda on the mainline.”
But for Amber, her brother’s struggle isn’t about maintaining a prison gang, or even improving the conditions within the SHU. It’s about ending his isolation so she and her family members will have the same ability to connect with him as relatives of normal prisoners have. “My niece hasn’t been able to hug her dad, kiss him or even hold his hand,” Amber said. “Solitary affects not only the prisoners but the family members. Since 2011 we have been fighting this struggle. … Prisoners are still human beings. They’re doing their time for their crimes, and nowhere in their sentence does it say they should be tortured.”
Marta, another sister of a Pelican Bay hunger striker, spoke in Spanish and also read a letter from her brother. “If I cry in front of a guard, I hand him a weapon,” her brother Luis wrote her. Marta herself accused law enforcement of “taking control of the lives of our kids” and said both she and her brother have been supported by their religious faith through their ordeal.
“CDCR is strong, but love conquers all,” Marta said. “Victory is near, but some may not see it” — a reference to her claim that some of the hunger strikers were showing signs of organ failure and other long-term damage even before the 45-day benchmark usually used by doctors as the point where the bodily harm from long-term starvation becomes irreversible. “My name is Marta, but my name is also Luis,” she concluded. [Marta’s remarks were translated here by Charles Nelson.]
“My cousin is suffering and not eating because all he wants is five basic rights every human being should have, what we mean when we say ‘equality,’” said Kima. “Each person today representing a person in prison is demanding equal rights. I’ll admit that for a few years, my cousin was out of sight, out of mind. Then I remembered [he had been in prison] eight years and as long as he’s still alive, he’s still my family. So I went up and drove 16 hours to see this cousin of mine I barely knew. I was too little to remember, but with Latinos it’s all about family. I drove up to see him, and when I saw him I didn’t know him at all.”
Kima said that she and the cousin she hadn’t known since she was a young girl connected over their religious and family ties. “When I spoke to him, it changed my world,” she said. “The same desires that run through me run through him. He is the strongest and most positive person I have ever spoken to. Nobody in my life has ever spoken to me like he has. How was it I forgot he was my life, my blood? So I went back, and every single time I got more from him. He never spoke about his situation, only about how I was, how things were out here, and how I could make it better. I want equality for him, and for him to be able to live a better life, even where he is.”
Since the August 18 event, the stalemate between the strikers and CDCR has continued. According to a dispatch from the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Web site,, “California prisoner hungers strike advocates and supporters continue their efforts to compel state decision makers to negotiate with hunger strikers as they endure their 52nd day without food.” They had hoped for meaningful talks with Jeffrey Beard and other CDCR officials at the start of August, but Beard’s combative, dismissive L. A. Times op-ed August 6 showed he was in no mood to negotiate or even acknowledge the legitimacy of the strike. The strike has spread from Pelican Bay to other California prisons as well, including Corcoran, where the Solidarity site reports, “Legal observers … say that the 70 people still on strike at that facility are facing harsh relation by prison officials including the denial of medical care — even for those coming off strike — and the confiscation of personal property.”
The Solidarity site also reports that CDCR is trying to break the Pelican Bay strike by transferring some of the organizers to other prisons in the California system. “They presently have us four main reps on ‘G row’ by ourselves for now. No telling how long we’ll be staying here,” said Pelican Bay striker and Short Corridor Collective representative Aurturo Castellanos in an August 27 statement quoted on the site. According to the site, Castellanos is one of the prisoners Jeffrey Beard was referring to in his op-ed as a prison gang leader who’s participating in the strike just to re-establish the power of his gang in Pelican Bay’s general population.
Of CDCR’s attacks on the strikers, the statement by Castellanos and his fellow strike leaders said, “The world is now a witness, as Gov. [Jerry] Brown and his appointee Beard demonstrate callous and deliberate indifference to the extreme forms of inexcusable suffering our loved ones and ourselves are subjected to in our fight for humane treatment of the prisoner class of human beings. … CDCR’s decades of human rights violations is the catalyst for thousands coming together and taking up this protest. … They fail to see the writing on the wall. … CDCR is going to change whether they like it or not. This only motivates us more.”
Other concerns expressed on the Solidarity Web site include the Brown administration’s recent appeal to a court for authority to force-feed the hunger strikers, and the state’s refusal to provide the strikers health care. According to the site, more than 120 health care professionals have signed an open letter supporting the strikers. “As health care providers, we are issuing this statement to register our concern with reports that the hunger strikers are being denied appropriate medical care,” this letter read. “Where there has been a concerted attempt by the authorities to censor the strikers, and to keep the strike out of the news, dozens of letters from affected strikers at prisons across the state have reached supporters on the outside. These letters repeat similar details of medical neglect and abuse.”

A Memoir Questioned

A bizarre incident occurred during the showing of Concrete and Sunshine at the Centro Cultural August 18. Among the literature tables at the entrance to the event was one run by Veracruz Pedroza Sanchez selling Prison Letters: Walking to Honor. The book is about her relationship with her cousin, Fernando Julio “Chunky” Sanchez, and features extended quotes from the letters he wrote her while in prison. “Chunky” was not in a SHU; he died tragically at age 25 when the truck returning him from a work detail in a fire zone was involved in an accident.
Three-quarters of the way through the film, a middle-aged Latina angrily approached Veracruz’ literature table and knocked the box containing her books to the ground. She then started screaming at Veracruz, saying she was “Chunky”’s mother Isabel and Veracruz’ book was illegal because it had been published without her permission. “You have no right to use my son’s name and likeness!” she told Veracruz, adding that she was going to organize a boycott of Veracruz’ book within the Latino community. Due to Isabel’s objection, the organizers had to stop the movie while she delivered her complaints in a loud, hectoring voice. She especially objected to Veracruz’ book being sold inside the Centro Cultural because that was where she and “Chunky”’s father had been married.
Later, after the Pelican Bay prisoners’ families had made their presentations, the event organizers allowed Isabel’s daughter to speak. “I want to apologize for my mother getting upset,” she said. “My brother was a prisoner and he passed away in a fire truck about five days before we were supposed to see him. We were six in my family, and my brother was the baby. Before he passed he wrote a letter to my dad acknowledging he wasn’t living up to his fullest potential. … Even in these places that are so hard and so unnatural, you can find peace. I’m really grateful you came out today. We didn’t say [“Chunky”] was a prisoner; we said he was a brother who helped his family, and even now that he’s dead he helps us.”
“It’s horrible that our family members have no rights,” Marta, Luis’s brother, said at the end of the event — this time speaking in English. “In Tecate, Mexico [the prisoners] can create all these things [referring to artworks from Mexican prisoners that were for sale at one of the back tables]. The people in the SHU are so smart but we can’t even get a phone call. They made mistakes, but they could create so much, and the CDCR just wants to keep them in isolation.”

Contacts to Support the Prisoners

Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity,
San Diego Committee for Prisoners’ Rights, (619) 508-6756, online via Facebook at (another online petition criticizing CDCR’s “refusal to recognize, address, and implement the changes outlined by prisoners being held in Security Housing Units [SHU’s]”) (American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego/Imperial Counties’ campaign against Governor Brown’s call for building even more prisons in California)
Veracruz Sanchez, e-mail, Web (contact to buy Prison Letters: Walking to Honor)

The Pelican Bay Strikers’ Statement in Full
Greetings. We begin this update on where things stand with our struggle to force an end to long-term solitary confinement and additional major reforms to the prison system with a shout-out of solidarity, love, and respect to all of our supporters and people of conscience worldwide.
As many are aware today marks the 51st day of our peaceful hunger strike. We continue to protest decades of solitary confinement; torture for the purposes of coercion. This is the third hunger strike in two years and yet nothing of real substance has changed for the majority of us.
We are now at a critical stage, where each minute that passes is extremely taxing mentally and physically. Many of us participating since day one are suffering what may be irreversible damage, and are facing a very real possibility of death. It is a fact that a major cause of death during long fasts is heart attack. This may come at any moment for us… When it does, we’re done for.
That said, you may all rest assured that our commitment to this worthy cause remains undaunted. The world is now a witness, as Gov. Brown and his appointee [California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Secretary Jeffrey] Beard demonstrate callous and deliberate indifference to the extreme forms of inexcusable suffering our loved ones and ourselves are subjected to in our fight for humane treatment of the prisoner class of human beings…
Gov. Brown’s response to our peaceful action has not been silence, as so many presume—rather, it has been loud and clear via the propaganda and rhetoric being spewed by his mouthpiece Dr. Beard. The fascist police state prisoncrats have attempted to misdirect the attention and the growing condemnation of their human rights abuses. They have tried to disrupt public support by dredging up 20-40 year old histories that are for the most part portrayed in a false light. They have desperately tried to justify and further their diabolical agenda, and indeed expand the numbers of prisoners (and loved ones outside) being tortured—to the point of death, insanity, and false confessions. They have the audacity to claim our push for reform is a “gang power play,” and that many prisoners have been “coerced into participation.” This is another tactic aimed at misleading the public so as to maintain the status quo with impunity. They have tried to ignore the fact that our collective peaceful efforts, and our call to “end group hostilities,” are contrary to their propaganda. CDCR’s decades of human rights violations is the catalyst for thousands coming together and taking up this protest…
Another clear demonstration of where Brown, Beard, et al. stand is their response to this peaceful action. They have directed their subordinates to subject participants, and non-participants alike, to systematic retaliation including, but not limited to: additional isolation and sensory deprivation via placement in the Administrative Segregation stand-alone building; withholding mail and visits; blasting cold air into SHU and Ad-Seg cells; confiscating property; fabricating rule violations and alleging gang activity; cell-extractions; threats and intimidation; and mass relocation. They have rescinded so-called privileges granted in 2011-2013. And they have cut the number of allowable books from 10 (which has been a right for 23 years), down to 5. The above are only a few examples.
We are calling on all people of conscience to make their opposition heard. We urge the people to demand that the powers that be end this abuse now. Today. Before it it is too late for some of us. On Friday August 16, CDCR transferred 51 people on hunger strike from this Ad-Seg Unit down south to a medical facility in preparation for force feeding. This is where we’ll all be soon. Some of us are considering a challenge to such feeding. What’s going on in this nation that it has come to such a point? The people have the power to change things now. Know this: Our spirit and resolve remain strong and we know we can count on you all! Together we are making it happen, not only for ourselves, but, more importantly, for the generations to come.
With the Utmost Solidarity, Love, and Respect—Onward in Struggle,
Pelican Bay State Prison Short Corridor Collective
Todd Ashker, C-58191, PBSP-SHU
Arturo Castellanos, C-17275, PBSP-SHU
Antonio Guillen, P-81948, PBSP-SHU
Sitawa Nantambu Jamaa (Dewberry), C-35671, PBSP-SHU

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Medea Benjamin: Making “Drone” a Dirty Word

Peace Activist Speaks in San Diego for the Third Time in 10 Months


Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

At her appearance at the First Church of the Brethren in San Diego August 16 — the third time in less than a year she’s come to town as part of her campaign against drones — activist Medea Benjamin recalled a time before she was a U.S. Senate candidate (for the Green Party against Dianne Feinstein in 2000) or the co-founder of the anti-war group Code Pink. “When I worked on clothing workers’ issues,” she remembered, “the most powerful word we could use was ‘sweatshops.’ When we lobbied Starbucks, the most powerful thing we could say to get them to buy free trade coffee was, ‘Starbucks sells sweatshop coffee.’” In her current incarnation as an activist against drones, Benjamin said, the word “drone” itself has taken on the same power as “sweatshop” had when she was working on fair wages and safety protections for textile workers and coffee growers.

“We have managed to penetrate the veil of secrecy and turned this cool new technology into a four-letter word,” Benjamin boasted. “They don’t want us to use the word ‘drones.’ They come up with new terminology every two months and they have highly paid P.R. people trying to get people not to use ‘drones.’ … They hate the word ‘drone’ so much that the password to their computer system is, ‘Don’t say “drones.”’ You know you’re winning when they can’t stop people from saying ‘drone’ — or from turning it into a verb.”

Benjamin’s campaign against drones first brought her to San Diego last October for another First Church of the Brethren appearance to promote her then-new book, Drone Warfare. She came for a follow-up visit in April and then an update August 16 that also contained a reading of a 25-minute playlet about drones. One key part of Benjamin’s strategy is to travel to countries which the U.S. has targeted with drone attacks — first Pakistan and now Yemen — and interview surviving family members of drone victims. But she began her August 16 talk with an account of how she disrupted President Obama’s big speech last May 23 supposedly “resetting” and putting limits on the so-called “war on terror.”

“When I heard President Obama was going to give a major foreign policy speech on Guantánamo and drones May 23, I did manage to get inside,” Benjamin said. “It was a really surreal experience. There I was for three hours in a room full of media. People looked over and wondered, ‘Why is she here?,’ while they were waiting for the President. The media had reported that he might say things like the CIA would no longer be allowed to have their own drones and they’d ban ‘signature strikes,’ which have killed a lot of civilians.” “Signature strikes,” she later explained, are drone attacks against specific individuals not because there’s any evidence that they’re terrorists or members of al-Qaeda but only because their actions supposedly fit a “profile” associated with terrorism.

Instead, Benjamin said, Obama “skirted around the issues” of Guantánamo and drones. “It was a lot of justification of the drones without an admission that we make mistakes.” Obama also repeated his excuse that Congress has prevented him from closing the detention center at Guantánamo — even though nothing is stopping him from releasing the 86 detainees (out of 166 total) who have already been “cleared” by the U.S. military. Benjamin spoke up during the speech and pointed out that inconvenient fact, “and I was suddenly surrounded by security people putting their hands on me. ‘You’re hurting me and I’m about to scream,’ I said. They let me go and that gave me some time to talk about drones.”

Benjamin’s odd attempt to fulfill her constitutional right to petition the head of her government for a redress of grievances — and the Secret Service security detail’s attempt to stop her — got even odder when “they showed me their badges and said, ‘You are about to be arrested’ — which, given the number of times I’ve already been arrested, didn’t especially bother me. I said, ‘I’m having a dialogue with the president of the United States and I don’t think he wants you to pull me away.’ It took time to drag me out, and on my way out I said, ‘Are you going to apologize to the families of the people you’ve killed?’ He said, ‘Young woman’ — I’m 10 years older than he is — ‘I think her voice should be listened to.’ The reporters said I was being ‘rude,’ and I said, ‘It’s rude to kill civilians and stuff force-feeding tubes down people’s throats at Guantánamo.’”

Though progress has been made on the drone issue, Benjamin said, it’s been two steps forward and one step back. Obama not only made the May 23 speech, he’s cut back on the number of drone strikes and been more careful about targeting them, she explained. Also, support for drone attacks among the U.S. people has dropped from the stratospheric levels she described in her books — 80 to 90 percent — to 60 percent. What’s more, Benjamin said, the drone issue has developed a gender gap: “The majority of American women are against the drone strikes.” Another hopeful sign was the near-passage by the House of Representatives of an amendment that would have stopped the National Security Agency (NSA) from collecting records on the phone calls and e-mails of virtually all Americans.

On the negative side was the most recent “terror alert,” based on so-called “chatter,” which Benjamin suggested was an excuse by the government to raise the perception of fear among the American people and boost support for drone strikes and NSA spying. “I’m no conspiracy theorist, but it seems not to be a coincidence that this happened just when we were gaining momentum,” Benjamin said. “They said the ‘attack’ would come from Yemen and it would be revenge against a drone strike. Then they reacted by a worldwide travel alert, closing 21 embassies, making it harder to repatriate the Yemenis [many of the ‘cleared’ Guantánamo detainees are from Yemen], and increasing the drone strikes. In the last two weeks there have been nine drone strikes from Yemen, and for the first time drones have been flying over the capital.”

According to Benjamin, drones themselves are a terror weapon. “Drones don’t just kill people; they terrorize the entire population,” she said. “There are two dozen al-Qaeda leaders the U.S. says are living in Yemen, and since 2009 we have been pounding Yemen with drones and air strikes. We have killed between 6.000 and 20,000 people in Yemen, and only four have been top al-Qaeda leaders. We’re killing innocent people and low-level al-Qaeda members.”

As she’s done earlier in Pakistan and other countries subjected to U.S. drone attacks, Benjamin traveled to Yemen to meet with the families of drone victims. “One was a man whose brother drove a cab and picked up some strangers,” she recalled. “The drone struck the cab and killed everyone in it.” Benjamin’s interviewee brought two of his dead brother’s children and tried to bring the widow as well, “but she’s non-functional.” According to Benjamin, her interviewee offered to provide proof to the Yemeni government that his brother was not a terrorist, and insisted that under the tribal culture of Yemen the U.S. has an obligation to admit the error, apologize and pay compensation to the family of the person they wrongly killed.

Benjamin also cited the case of a man she met in Pakistan as proof that, far from helping end terrorism, drone strikes are increasing the terrorist threat by making the surviving members of families of drone victims more anti-American and therefore more likely to join al-Qaeda and similar groups. “Karim Khan told us about his son and brother being killed in a drone strike,” Benjamin said. “He speaks perfect English, and we wanted to invite him to tell his story in the U.S. — until someone sent me a video he made in which he said, ‘If God gives me a chance to kill Obama, I will. He killed my brother and my son, and in my culture the punishment for killing is to be killed.’”

According to Benjamin, there is “tremendous opposition” to the drone strikes among the Yemeni people. She cited one woman, a journalist and delegate to Yemen’s parliament, “who got in trouble with al-Qaeda because she said religion and politics shouldn’t mix.” She got into so much trouble with al-Qaeda, Benjamin explained, that they put out a fatwa calling on the faithful to kill her, and she escaped only by wearing traditional Muslim coverings. “She hates al-Qaeda because they’re against everything she stands for,” Benjamin said, “but she said, ‘When you kill al-Qaeda [people] with drone strikes, you’re turning criminals and thugs into martyrs. In my vision of a democratic Yemen, drone strikes don’t exist.’”

There are a lot of Yemenis who agree with her, Benjamin said. Since Yemen’s long-time pro-U.S. dictator was overthrown in an Arab Spring-type popular uprising a year or two ago, the Transitional Committee of the National Democratic Conference — essentially a convention of 565 delegates working on writing a new constitution for Yemen — passed a ban on drone strikes inside Yemen. Later the full assembly of the National Democratic Conference also passed it — an especially remarkable achievement given that according to the rules of the National Democratic Conference, it takes at least 90 percent of the vote to pass anything.

What makes it even more ironic is that the National Democratic Conference is being funded with “democracy promotion” money from the U.S. government — but the U.S. government is ignoring the drone ban on the authority of Yemen’s current president, who was the vice-president under the former regime. “Obama would rather listen to the previous president than the democratic process the U.S. is funding,” Benjamin said.

What can be done to stop the drones? Boycotting companies that make drones isn’t a viable strategy, Benjamin explained, because most of them are purely defense contractors and don’t make anything sold in the civilian marketplace. There are a few exceptions, like General Electric and a California company that makes both miniature surveillance drones and chargers for electric Nissans, but for most drone makers “the vast majority of their income comes from the Department of Defense.

One key development Benjamin is waiting for is the increasing United Nations interest in drones. Its secretary-general, Ban Ki-Moon, “has been working on a statement that drones should be regulated,” she said. A U.N. agency is “looking at 25 cases [of drone attacks] by the U.S. and Israel and seeing if these constitute war crimes,” she added.

Another avenue is lobbying for change within the U.S. government — and Benjamin said there are some surprising allies within the military who may not want to see the drone program eliminated but at least want it cut back. “There are people in the U.S. military who want to see the drones taken away from the CIA,” Benjamin said. “There are people who talk about working against the ‘worst abuses,’ like signature strikes. Divest the military and the CIA from being able to attack people based only on ‘suspicious behavior’ and you’ll have curbed a lot of abuses.”

Benjamin also thinks there’s a lot of sentiment for banning so-called “double-tap” strikes, in which the U.S. launches a second drone attack right after the first one, thereby often killing first responders, aid workers, nurses and paramedics doing rescue work. Though the two taps in the infamous “Collateral Murder” video leaked by Bradley Manning were from an on-scene helicopter rather than a drone, the concept of the “double tap” will be familiar to anyone who saw that grisly video. It’s a violation of the internationally agreed-on laws of war to target rescue workers on purpose, and there may be leverage within the military to stop “double tap” strikes for that reason.

But the main part of U.S. behavior that has to change — and that activists against drones and other abuses in the “war on terror” have to get to change — is the whole screw-you attitude the U.S. has assumed towards the rest of the world. “A lot of people around the world sees us as a country that doesn’t respect other people,” Benjamin said. What’s more, though Barack Obama took office as president having promised to end some of the more glaring abuses of the Bush administration’s “war on terror,” very little has changed. The Guantánamo detention center is still open, and people the U.S. military have actually “cleared” for release are not only still there but are being force-fed in response to their hunger strike.

People in other countries who once looked on Obama as a beacon of hope have given up on him and written him off as just another insensitive overlord, Benjamin said. “That’s why, when I confronted Obama, I asked him if he would be willing to say whether the lives of Muslim children are as precious as the lives of his own.” As long as America’s answer is that they aren’t — that the president of the United States reserves for himself or herself the right to order the summary execution of anyone in the world, regardless of where they are or how many others are going to be killed with them — drone strikes and other so-called “anti-terror” attacks will only sustain the rest of the world’s hatred of America and serve as al-Qaeda’s most effective recruiting tools.

Thursday, August 01, 2013

San Diegans Protest Manning, Martin Verdicts

Street Action in Hillcrest Draws 75 People the Day Manning Is Convicted


Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

“Americans Have a Right to Know”

“I Am Bradley Manning”

“Bradley Manning, American Hero”

“You Are the Resistance”

Gabe Conaway (right) and a police officer




A committed group of about 75 San Diego activists turned out on the corner of Sixth and University in Hillcrest Tuesday afternoon, July 30, to protest the conviction of Army Private First Class Bradley Manning on 19 of 21 counts, including espionage, for his role in leaking classified material for print and Internet publication. Manning’s case has been a cause célèbre since he was arrested three years ago and charged with releasing U.S. diplomatic documents and footage of American soldiers allegedly committing war crimes in Iraq to the WikiLeaks Web site.
Manning became a controversial figure, hailed as a hero by some Americans and denounced as a traitor by others. During the three years he was held in prison before trial, he was put in solitary confinement, his clothes were taken away and he was forced to sleep naked, uncovered, on a concrete floor. U.S. authorities said this was done to prevent Manning from committing suicide.
Variously identified as a Gay man and a male-to-female Transgender person — Manning reportedly embraced a female identity, “Brianna,” in some of his e-mails to friends before he was arrested and cut off from virtually any contact with the outside world — Manning has been hailed as a “Queero” by progressives and radicals in the Queer community. He’s also frequently been compared to Edward Snowden, who earlier this year leaked the National Security Agency’s (NSA) collection of records of virtually every telephone call made in the U.S. — and who fled the U.S. after his leaks, first to Hong Kong and then to Russia, rather than face Manning’s fate.
During his court-martial before Col. Denise Lind — Manning and his attorney, David Coombs, chose to have him tried by a single judge rather than the usual panel — she acquitted him of the most serious charge against him, “aiding the enemy,” which could have meant a sentence of life without the possibility of parole. But the charges on which he was convicted could carry a sentence of up to 138 years, which in practice would amount to the same thing. “We won the battle, but we need to go out and win the war,” Coombs said in a post about the verdict on the Bradley Manning Support Network Web page, “Today is a good day, but Bradley is by no means out of the fire.”
The July 30 rally in San Diego was put on by the San Diego Coalition to Free Bradley Manning in association with other progressive, peace and Queer organizations. It was MC’d by local organizer Gabe Conaway of Canvass for a Cause (CFAC), who was able to include not only live speakers but also statements of support for Manning from organizations and individuals all over the world. Among them were the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Amnesty International, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, Manning’s family, and investigative journalists Glenn Greenwald (who did the interview with Edward Snowden that led to the revelation that the NSA is spying 24/7 on the phone calls of all Americans) and Jeremy Scahill.
Conaway kicked off the rally by reading the statement from the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, Ben Wizner. “While we’re relieved that Mr. Manning was acquitted of the most dangerous charge, the ACLU has long held the view that leaks to the press in the public interest should not be prosecuted under the Espionage Act,” Wizner said. “Since [Manning] already pleaded guilty to charges of leaking information — which carry significant punishment — it seems clear that the government was seeking to intimidate anyone who might consider revealing valuable information in the future.”
The first live speaker, veteran San Diego Queer attorney Charlie Pratt, picked up on that theme when he called Manning’s court-martial a “show trial.” “The Obama administration wanted to put Bradley Manning’s head on a pike as a warning to us all,” Pratt said. He called for a campaign of letters and e-mails to the Public Affairs Office of Major General Jeffery Buchanan, who as the so-called “convening authority” of Manning’s court-martial has the authority to reduce Manning’s sentence after Judge Lind imposes it. Buchanan can be e-mailed at or reached by phone at (202) 685-2900. He also suggested that people picket military bases to demand justice for Manning: “I live near Miramar and there’s a place to vent your feelings about the military.”
Local activist Anoki read a statement from Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, who called the verdict against Manning “the first-ever espionage conviction against a whistleblower. It is a dangerous precedent and an example of national security extremism. It is a short-sighted judgment that cannot be tolerated and must be reversed. It can never be that conveying true information to the public is ‘espionage.’ … The Obama administration has been chipping away democratic freedom in the United States. With today’s verdict, Obama has hacked off much more. The administration is intent on deterring and silencing whistleblowers, intent on weakening freedom of the press. The U.S. First Amendment states that ‘Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.’ What part of ‘no’ does Barack Obama fail to comprehend?”
Philip Rockwell, radio personality who hosted a show on the now-defunct Air America affiliate in San Diego, pointed to a statement Obama posted on his Web site,, during his first Presidential campaign in 2008 praising whistleblowers. The statement, which was quietly removed from the Obama site in June 2012, said, “Often, the best source of information about waste, fraud and abuse in government is an existing government employee committed to public integrity and willing to speak out. Such acts of courage and patriotism, which can sometimes save lives and often save taxpayers’ dollars, should be encouraged rather than stifled. We need to empower federal employees as watchdogs of wrongdoing and partners in performance. Barack Obama will strengthen whistleblowing laws to protect federal workers who expose waste, fraud and abuse of authority in government. Obama will make sure federal agencies expedite the process for reviewing whistleblowers’ claims, and ensure whistleblowers have full access to federal courts and due process.”
Obama’s record as President, Rockwell said, has been exactly the opposite. “There has been no ‘change’ whatsoever” from the anti-whistleblower policies of the George W. Bush administration, he claimed. “When we elected the President on the basis of ‘change,’ it’s not ‘change’ to drop bombs from drones on civilians.” Rockwell also argued that the mainstream corporate media have served the cause of the national security state by “dumbing down” the American people and getting them to accept gross violations of their constitutionally protected civil liberties.
“Bradley Manning is a hero,” Rockwell said. “He showed us things the Bush crime family should have shown us. He showed us films of [U.S. soldiers gunning down Iraqi] people who had cameras — not guns — slung across their backs. The people who did that one are walking around free. The Bush crime family is walking around free. Bradley Manning chose to tell the truth because the mainstream media have been taken over. The media are spinning [the Manning case] the way Obama wants it spun.”
Holly Hellerstedt of CFAC read a statement from the Center for Constitutional Liberties, which represents WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, Glenn Greenwald, Jeremy Scahill and other journalists and activists challenging the U.S. military establishment. The Center’s statement pointed out that the 1917 Espionage Act under which Manning was convicted “is a discredited relic of the World War I era, created as a tool to suppress political dissent and anti-war activism, and it is outrageous that the government chose to invoke it in the first place against Manning. Government employees who blew the whistle on war crimes, other abuses and government incompetence should be protected under the First Amendment.”
“Watching and listening to the Bradley Manning verdicts on [Amy Goodman’s radio program and video Webcast] Democracy Now! was frustrating,” said Chris West of the San Diego Coalition to Free Bradley Manning. This was because his acquittal on the “aiding the enemy” charge was announced first — then his conviction on almost all the other charges. “Bradley Manning took the chance of having one person decide his sentence,” West explained. “He put his neck on the line and he may get 138 years in prison. The good news is he’s successfully attacked the government and their attempt to suppress any information whatsoever. Is this America? Do we care about each other? We need to keep up the pressure.”
After a speaker read a short statement of support for Manning from Tom DeChristopher, environmental activist who served five years in prison for disrupting an oil and gas lease sale by making phony bids, Activist San Diego (ASD) acting executive director Martin Eder came up to promote his group’s KNSJ 89.1 FM, a new alternative radio station in San Diego County that is presenting progressive programming. “This is all really about freedom of information and the right of the American people to know about the crimes being committed in their name,” Eder said. “Bradley Manning is a testament to those of us willing to put our names on the line to create a real people’s democracy.”
CFAC activist Shelby read a statement from Amnesty International’s senior director of law and public policy, Widney Brown. “The government’s priorities are upside down,” Brown said. “The U.S. government has refused to investigate credible allegations of torture and other crimes under international law despite overwhelming evidence. Yet they decided to prosecute Manning, who it seems was trying to do the right thing — reveal credible evidence of unlawful behavior by the government. … Since the attacks of September 11, we have seen the U.S. government use the issue of national security to defend a whole range of actions that are unlawful under international and domestic law. It’s hard not to draw the conclusion that Manning’s trial was about sending a message: the U.S. government will come after you, no holds barred, if you’re thinking of revealing evidence of its unlawful behavior.”
“We have witnessed an attack on an individual who blew the whistle on war crimes,” said Josh Funn of the San Diego chapter of the International Socialist Organization (ISO). “It’s also an attack directly on everyone here. They want to stop the free flow of information because they do commit war crimes. They kill innocent babies with drones. They’re trying to say investigative journalism is ‘aiding the enemy.’”
“We’re standing witness to our government painting a picture for us,” said Sean Bohac, president of SAME Alliance — a radical Queer organization formerly known as San Diego Alliance for Marriage Equality. “We have to stand up and say, ‘Hell no!,’ to the picture the government is painting for us.”
The rally closed with a reading of a statement from Bradley Manning’s family thanking the activist community for their grassroots support of him. “While we are obviously disappointed in today’s verdicts,” the Manning family statement said, “we are happy that Judge Lind agreed with us that Brad never intended to help America’s enemies in any way. Brad loves his country and was proud to wear its uniform.”
The family thanked attorney Coombs and Manning’s military lawyers, Major Thomas Hurley and Captain Joshua Tooman, and added, “Most of all, we would like to thank the thousands of people who rallied to brad’s cause, providing financial and emotional support throughout this long and difficult time, especially Jeff Paterson and Courage to Resist and the Bradley Manning Support Network. Their support has allowed a young Army private to defend himself against the full might of not only the U.S. army but also the U.S. government.”

To Lobby the Army to Free Bradley Manning:

The following statement has appeared on the Web page of the Bradley Manning Support Network,
The military is pulling out all the stops to chill efforts to increase transparency in our government. Now, we’re asking you to join us to ensure we’re doing all we can to secure Bradley’s freedom as well as protection for future whistleblowers.
Major General Jeffery S. Buchanan is the Convening Authority for Bradley’s court martial, which means that he has the authority to decrease Bradley’s sentence, no matter what the judge decides. As hundreds of activists join us in DC today to demonstrate at Maj. Gen. Buchanan’s base, Ft. McNair, we’re asking you to join our action demanding he do the right thing by calling, faxing, and e-mailing his Public Affairs Office.
The convening authority can reduce the sentence after the Judge makes her ruling.
Let’s Remind Maj. General Buchanan:
  • that Bradley was held for nearly a year in abusive solitary confinement, which the UN torture chief called “cruel, inhuman, and degrading.”
  • that President Obama has unlawfully influenced the trial with his declaration of Bradley Manning’s guilt.
  • that the media has been continually blocked from transcripts and documents related to the trial and that it has only been through the efforts of Bradley Manning’s supporters that any transcripts exist.
  • that under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) a soldier has the right to a speedy trial and that it was unconscionable to wait three years before starting the court-martial.
  • that absolutely no one was harmed by the release of documents that exposed war crimes, unnecessary secrecy and disturbing foreign policy.
  • that Bradley Manning is a hero who did the right thing when he revealed truth about wars that had been based on lies.
Remind General Buchanan that Bradley Manning’s rights have been trampled – Enough is enough!

Please help us reach all these important contacts:

Adrienne Combs, Deputy Officer Public Affairs (202) 685-2900
Col. Michelle Martin-Hing, Public Affairs Officer (202) 685-4899
The Public Affairs Office fax #: 202-685-0706

Try e-mailing Maj. Gen. Buchanan at or calling him at (202) 685-2900

The Public Affairs Office is required to report up the chain of command the number of calls they receive on a particular issue, so please help us flood the office with support for whistleblower Bradley Manning today!

Emotional Tale Grips Crowd at Martin Rally


Tokyo Abraja

Alton Burnell

Rudy Hernandez

Christine Griffin (left) leading the march

“Zimmerman: People Say Guilty”

“Trayvon Deserves Justice”

“End Racist Police Brutality”

“The Whole System Is Racist”

The Trayvon Martin March Encounters Comic-Con

“Jesus Bore Our Sins” Fundamentalist Christian Counter-Protest

Marchers Encounter “Christians” at Comic-Con

“Defiance”: The Marchers in the Gaslamp District

Marchers Return from the Gaslamp District

Ten days before the Bradley Manning rally, on July 20, about 100 activists met on the lawn at San Diego City College to protest another trial they regarded as a miscarriage of justice: the acquittal on all counts of George Zimmerman for shooting Trayvon Martin to death on February 26, 2012, in Sanford, Florida. Zimmerman, who claimed to be part-Latino but was generally perceived as white, shot and killed the unarmed Martin, who was African-American, but pleaded self-defense under Florida’s controversial “stand your ground” law and was set free by a six-person jury, five of whom were white.
One of the rally speakers, Ashley Brickes of the United Domestic Workers’ union, quoted a statement Zimmerman allegedly made when he was arrested in which he told police, “Those fucking punks, those fucking bastards, they think they can get away with anything.” Zimmerman was supposedly talking about Black people, but most of the speakers seemed to believe it was Zimmerman and other whites who can “get away with anything” as long as their victims are African-Americans or other people of color.
The most gripping tale told at the Martin rally was from the opening speaker, who identified himself only as Valentín from Riverside County. “It’s been almost a year since my daughter was killed by a federal agent” in Chula Vista, Valentín said. “We have never got a response — not from the federal government and not from the Chula Vista Police Department. I’m not looking for vengeance; I’m looking for justice. I am sorry again to see a young man being killed, whether he was white, Black or Latino. He should never have died. People are taking the law into their own hands, with no training” — a reference to Zimmerman’s membership in a Neighborhood Watch organization and his claim that the sight of a young Black man wearing a hoodie and walking late at night through a mostly white neighborhood was “suspicious.”
According to Valentín, when he contacted the Chula Vista Police Department and tried to get them to talk about his daughter’s death, they blamed the victim. “They told me, ‘In every family there’s always someone that gets in trouble. Your daughter was in the wrong place,’” he recalled. “By the time this lieutenant finished speaking, I felt like I had to apologize for my daughter being born.”
Valentín said he felt sorry for Trayvon Martin’s parents because “I know their pain. … They put nine shots in my daughter’s body at close range, and they try to tell me they had the right to do that. There’s no report from the Chula Vista Police Department. They’re doing this because they can get away with it. They say, ‘I have a badge, I’m the government, and I’ll do this because I have the right.’ … I’m glad you guys are gathering here today. It’s going to take people to make the government change their ways. They are servants. You guys put them in power. You have the power, not them.”
Another speaker, Tokyo Abraja, told a similar story about the death of a relative at the hands of law enforcement. “My brother was killed in L.A.,” she said. “I watched when four bullets were put in his back, and the police said it was ‘self-defense.’ We have killers walking the streets, and if we don’t change it, it will continue. … I will be that one voice in a million to speak for my brother. Let Trayvon’s death be a wake-up call for everyone.”
“We should be mindful of the ways to promote safety for all our children,” said rally speaker Amber Burnell. “If our leaders will not, we will do this on our own. Trayvon Martin’s death was a senseless crime. … We are all equal, despite where we live or how we were raised. I stand here to demand changes in the judicial system. I stand in solidarity with my brother, an inmate in the Pelican Bay SHU [Special Housing Unit, a euphemism for solitary confinement], and the 100 others who are on a hunger strike. My brother and these others are entombed in a box, being physically, psychologically and emotionally tortured. Change is coming. Stay strong and united, today, tomorrow and always.”
Other speakers from progressive organizations linked the racism allegedly behind Martin’s killing and Zimmerman’s acquittal to what Amelia Ortega of the women’s group Affirm called the U.S. government’s “war against people of color, immigrants, women and youth.” Ortega contrasted the treatment of Zimmerman with that of African-American woman Marissa Alexander, who fired a gun to warn off an allegedly abusing husband, pleaded justification under the Florida “stand your ground” law but was convicted and sentenced to prison; and CeCe MacDonald, a Black Transgender person in Minnesota who pleaded guilty to second-degree manslaughter after she used scissors to defend herself against Queer-bashers.
Two union leaders, Brickes and Alex Hernandez of the historically progressive International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU), also spoke. “We don’t want anyone else to suffer,” Hernandez said. “We were founded on blood in the 1930’s to bring equal rights for workers. We’re a family union, and a lot of our friends suffered a lot to bring workers’ rights and rights for everybody. We are one of the greatest unions because we were founded in blood. If somebody is suffering — if another union is suffering, we are there. We are here today to support Trayvon Martin.”
The plan was to follow the rally with a march, and the final scheduled speaker, San Diego NAACP chair Christine Griffin, “read” the crowd as so impatient to march that she canceled her speech and used her time at the microphone to organize the march. Though the July 20 action was part of a national mobilization to support Martin and protest the freeing of his killer, local organizers plotted a long march route that took the protest past the city’s biggest public event, Comic-Con. They walked from City College to the San Diego Convention Center and then through the Gaslamp District, encountering many people dressed in superhero costumes or carrying Comic-Con swag bags.
At one point the protesters became part of a three-way traffic jam between them, Comic-Con attendees and a Fundamentalist Christian group staging their own protest against Comic-Con. The Christian protesters brought along boilerplate signs describing a wrathful, judgmental, condemnatory Jesus but not making it clear just what they had against Comic-Con. Judging from prior protests, though, it seems they object to the sympathetic depictions of the supernatural and the occult in many of the popular comics, movies and books promoted at Comic-Con.
As the Trayvon Martin demonstrators marched through the Comic-Con crowds and passed the Fundamentalist protesters, they improvised slogans with Comic-Con themes, like, “No justice, no comic books,” and declaring themselves part of the real “Justice League.” Later, as they walked through the Gaslamp and saw many people with Comic-Con badges and bags patronizing the outdoor seats at local bars, the marchers started calling, “Out of the bars and into the streets!” — ironically echoing one of the classic Queer liberation slogans of the early 1970’s.

For more information on the next nationwide mobilization for Justice for Trayvon Martin visit:





On Wed., August 28, after we’ve marched in Washington on Aug. 24 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the great march against racism in Washington, D.C., led by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the People’s Power Assembly Movement calls on activists across the U.S. to hold local JUSTICE FOR TRAYVON MARTIN ASSEMBLIES, including rallies, speak-outs, marches in public squares or in front of federal buildings or local police headquarters.
One of the most memorable lines of Dr. King’s famous “I Have A Dream” speech, delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Monument to over a quarter of a million freedom marchers, was, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” The Trayvon Martin verdict is only the most recent sign that Dr. King’s dream is still a nightmare for Black and Brown youth.

There is a racist war against Black & Brown youth

Youth of color are routinely profiled by the police, security personnel and self-appointed vigilantes like George Zimmerman. Trayvon Martin has become the face of the many young people who have been stopped-and-frisked and sometimes beaten and killed by the police. The police and the courts have created racially motivated drug laws that have been used as an excuse to incarcerate a huge percentage of young generations of Black and Brown youth. These same youth have the highest unemployment rate, and the jobs they are forced to take are low-wage jobs without benefits, rights or union representation. The anti-youth war also includes massive cuts in education, including school closings in Black and Brown communities. We must turn our anger over the lynching of Trayvon Martin into a new nationwide struggle to stop the war against Black and Brown youth. This is the best way to honor the legacy of the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

  Issued by the People’s Power Assembly Movement   212.633.6646
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